6 productivity hacks for the remote CPA

As the brick-and-mortar economy flirts with reopening, knowledge workers trudge along at home, juggling paid work with unpaid hours as youth summer camp directors. CPAs have no need to return to crowded offices, especially not in states where COVID-19 is having a second wind. Even if CPAs could resume the 9-to-5 ritual, their clients (or colleagues, for those in-house) may not be eager to meet in person. Accounting will remain “remote-flexible” for the foreseeable future.

For some CPAs, that’s fine. Maybe they’ve even thrived at home. For others, the transition to a remote career has been rough. They have lost countless hours to inane email chains and software platforms that promise deliverance but deliver hours of troubleshooting and disappointment. Maybe they’ve hit the wall.

Now that quarterly taxes have passed, this is a good moment to take stock. Whether you’re in-house or out, how can you make the next quarter more productive?

1. Manage projects transparently

Of course, you’re organized — you’re a CPA. But clients will be calmer and easier to manage if they can see the status of their requests. Experiment with a project tracker such as Trello or Workfront, both of which enable you to share a project dashboard with clients. You could also create a custom project tracker in Excel and provide a SharePoint link if that’s more your thing.

2. Digitize payments

I won’t be the first or last commentator to say this: no more paper invoices, no more paper checks. Some CPAs cling to checks because they’re useful for establishing an audit trail. However, they can create cash management problems for your clients and their vendors. Sophisticated CPAs enter their payees’ ACH info once and automate the payments from there on. Even more advanced CPAs use AI platforms to digitally parse, allocate and pay invoices. The result: more time for more interesting, high-value work.

3. Stay collaborative

CPAs are used to sitting with their clients (or company executives) in a conference room where everyone has a copy of the financial statements. It’s hard to understand the numbers without context. My advice: Do introductions and catch up with video on, and then use screen-sharing modes on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. You can share spreadsheets, navigate clients through their QuickBooks, or show invoices from an AR or AP automation platform. Use the mouse (or a touchscreen and stylus) to point at numbers and elicit questions from your clients. This approach will streamline approvals, the crux of accounting, and arrest the slew of emails and questions you would receive later if clients reviewed the numbers on their own.

4. Be proactive, but not annoying

CPAs are advising their clients on how to leverage the CARES Act along with state- and county-level sources of COVID-19 financial relief. CPAs need a balance, however, between being proactive and being annoying. Yes, clients want your help surviving the shutdown. But no, they don’t want to hear from you daily or weekly. Most would prefer a short, sweet, relevant email once a month that provides actionable information.

5. Be concise or call

Clients don’t want your Shakespearean dramas right now. Write your email headline with all the subtlety of People magazine. Use one introductory sentence, maybe two at most. Deliver the meat in bullets. Then be done. If a client opens your email on their smartphone and has to thumb-scroll more than once to reach the end, that email won’t be read for days. If you find yourself overwriting, pause and schedule a call instead. Fifteen minutes on the phone is more productive than a chain of 15 distracting emails.

6. Set realistic hours

If you or your clients have children, cooking duties or family members to care for, your hours might have to adjust. Maybe schedule calls for 7:30 p.m. or later, when kids go to sleep and there’s peace and quiet. And rather than waste your time emailing time back and forth, offer your clients an automated scheduler (e.g., Calendly, Appointlet, GigaBook, etc.) where they can pick times within parameters you set.

Working with clients digitally can be challenging, but ultimately, it will push you to communicate and collaborate more efficiently. It will motivate you to experiment with new technologies and workflows. Whatever the “new normal” becomes, you will be more resilient and able to deal with it. In the meantime, good luck with summer camp.